‘We must do better’: NASCAR industry pledges to advocate for change and racial equality

When Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem in 2016, and when athletes in several sports were protesting racial inequality in 2017, the NASCAR industry didn’t want to address those issues.

On-camera interview requests for NASCAR executives and black crew members were universally denied. Team owners Richard Childress and Richard Petty had indicated they would not tolerate protests during the national anthem, and followup conversations on the topic never were entertained.

This was not surprising, as the NASCAR industry, with its Southern roots, seemed to go out of its way to avoid the issue. Mention whether NASCAR was taking a hard enough stance with those wanting to fly Confederate flags at races, for example, and the responses in general tried not to cause controversy.

Bubba Wallace, the lone full-time black driver in the national series, often gave heart-felt opinions on race in America. But he, in some ways understandably, would get frustrated with requests for comment on the issues – why should he have to answer questions, or be the first to answer questions, about racism, and not the other drivers?

Some drivers even continued to bristle at questions in the last week leading into the NASCAR Cup Series Folds of Honor 500 Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

That is what made the prerace so important Sunday.

Wallace stood on pit road wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt in memory of George Floyd, whose death May 25th has resulted in murder charges against four Minneapolis police officers. The shirt also included “Black Lives Matter,” and Wallace’s mask was one of the United States flag.

Keedron Bryant, the 12-year-old gospel singer whose “I Just Wanna Live” song went viral in the last week, sang the national anthem.

During the pace laps, NASCAR stopped all the cars on pit road, and NASCAR President Steve Phelps addressed the competitors.

“Our country is in pain, and people are justifiably angry, demanding to be heard,” Phelps said. “The black community and all people of color have suffered in our country, and it has taken far too long for us to hear their demands for change.

“Our sport must do better. Our country must do better. The time is now to listen, to understand and to stand against racism and racial injustice. We ask our drivers … and all our fans to join us in this mission, to take a moment of reflection, to acknowledge that we must do better as a sport and join us as we now pause and take [time] to listen.”

That message might do even more for NASCAR than its 16 years of having a diversity program designed to help potential minority drivers, crew members and team personnel advance in the industry. The program has helped the sport increase the number of minorities involved, but it has not changed the culture as far as advocacy and institutional change.

After a 30-second moment of silence, drivers started their cars. And then another message came, another important step for NASCAR. A video on racial inequality, which many drivers had shared on social media prior to the race, was played on the FOX telecast that had them vowing to reflect, listen, and advocate for change.

“Something just has to change,” said race winner Kevin Harvick, who participated in the video. “I think when you look at what happened in Minnesota, it’s just disgraceful to everyone. … It’s just unbelievable that we sit and watch these things happen, and it’s just really confusing.

“It makes you confused, mad, not know what to do, where to start, and that’s just where a lot of guys talked about it, and we started.”

Harvick wants an action plan, but Sunday’s video was a start.

“To be able to have conversations about things — I’m definitely a person that wants to hear a plan that has actions included in it, and just try to support each other and do the things that we can do to try to help our communities and help the conversations, because there’s so much that everyone doesn’t understand of what we need to do and how we need to do it,” he said.

The video was spearheaded by seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and Ty Dillon, who was one of the first drivers to post something on social media and who had a deep conversation on Instagram with Wallace.

“A lot of us drivers started chatting about the week and experience and a lot of this was led by Bubba,” Johnson said. “I really have to give him a ton of credit, including Ty Dillon, the accountability that those two really put on the garage area, put on me — not directly on me, but I could just see it made a difference, and I think that resonated with a lot of people.”

The drivers have a group text and talked with NASCAR about the video and the message they wanted to convey.

Kyle Busch also has done a video with former Carolina Panther running back Jonathan Stewart, and that conversation on race and society is being edited.

“It’s a time for us to take initiative but also to listen and learn and go from there,” Busch said.

But why now? What is it about this moment that has pushed drivers from the sidelines to the forefront?

“I’m not sure I have the answer for you,” Johnson said. “I know for myself, what I’ve been through, and some great conversations with Bubba at the beginning of the week were very good for me. I just called him. I just wanted to check in on him as a friend and where our conversation went was good for me.

“And then I spent the majority of the week reaching out to other black friends that I have around the country and just checking in, checking in on them, wondering what they’re thinking, wondering how they’re doing, and then just listening, and then it was really good for me.”

Johnson has a foundation that has focused on education grants to schools. Is that the answer? He doesn’t know what role his foundation will play after he retires this season. The first step is learning. And understanding.

“There’s a lot of noise out there, but the conversations I had on just basic human rights and being kind to one another rung true for me, and I know that’s where it came from for myself,” he said.

Xfinity: Allmendinger wins, gets another race

AJ Allmendinger won the Xfinity race at Atlanta, which made him eligible for the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus at the next bonus race – the second race at Homestead this coming weekend. The only problem? Allmendinger’s next planned race was Talladega.

Problem solved: Kaulig Racing will add a race to his schedule to run at Homestead. He will have to start at the rear of the field because the Sunday lineup will be determined by the final results Saturday, which Allmendinger won’t run.

Gander Trucks: Enfinger win twice as nice

Grant Enfinger won twice in his first 83 career NASCAR Gander RV Trucks Series races. Now he has won twice in his last four, winning the season-opener at Daytona and then Saturday at Atlanta. The

“It’s a huge advantage for us to already have won at Daytona so we can be more aggressive,” said Enfinger, referring to being locked into the playoffs with the Daytona win. “I want to keep this truck in one piece … but that’s it.

“Other than that, it doesn’t matter. We have more to gain than we do to lose. That’s not the situation we’ve been in the last few years.”

On The Air

Wednesday

NASCAR Cup Blue-Emu 500 (Martinsville), 7 p.m., FS1

Saturday

NASCAR Xfinity 250 (Homestead), 3:30 p.m., FOX

NASCAR Gander RV Trucks Baptist Health 200 (Homestead), 7:30 p.m., FS1

Sunday

NASCAR Xfinity 250 (Homestead), noon, FS1

NASCAR Cup Dixie Vodka 400 (Homestead), 3:30 pm., FOX

Stat of Note

Kevin Harvick, 44, is the oldest driver to win at Atlanta since a 48-year-old Dale Earnhardt Sr. won at the track in March 2000.

Social Spotlight

— Jimmie Johnson giving the command to start engines from his car.

They Said It

“You didn’t really know what to do on that particular day [winning Atlanta in 2001] — lots of emotion in all kinds of different directions, didn’t know how to celebrate, didn’t know what to say. And you look back at all those events, and I was able to celebrate it the right way in 2018 and pay tribute to how much Dale Earnhardt meant to this sport for so many years, and to be able to do that same celebration at the same racetrack 20 years later is pretty special for me.”

— Kevin Harvick on his tribute to Dale Earnhardt after the race